I started chasing in 2016. It’s now 2017, and I’m putting out storm chasing tips… Really.
But if you’re new and haven’t done this before, maybe they’ll help! Check ’em out and see what might pertain to you. It’s better than learning simple stuff the hard way.
I’m a computer guy. I like checklists. But I know that long checklists are boring and encourage people to skim over them. With that in mind, here’s a link to the short checklists I use for:
- My Pre-Chase Season preparations
- Chase Equipment to pack
- Last steps before leaving on a chase trip
- Pre-Chase checklist (Posted below as well)
- The contents of my chase tote so I remember what I need to replace.
Speaking of chase totes, you might consider making one to leave in your vehicle. Mine has:
- A small tape measure – in case I decide to brave leaving the car to grab a large hailstone to measure.
- HINT: Buy a small tape measure or just a ruler. The largest hailstone on record is approx. eight inches in diameter so a ruler should cover any situation. You don’t need a fifty foot Stanley tape measure.
- Plastic bags – Surprisingly useful. Grocery bags work pretty well. Funny enough I like them to put over my muddy tripod feet/legs when I throw it back in the car.
- Clear, heavy plastic sheet
- In case I suddenly need a new back or side window. Grab one from your favorite hardware store (check the paint department). I don’t recommend using super thin stuff.
- Paper towels
- Duct tape
- Needle nose pliers – This is sort of a leaveover from living in Arizona, where I had an unfortunate run-in years ago with Cholla cactus. However they’re useful for pulling thorns and burrs how of your shoes, your socks, your ankles, etc…
- Extra batteries for flashlight – Remember to change your batteries occasionally!
- First aid kit
- Nothing fancy. It’s mostly for me or other car occupants if we hurt ourselves. If I can use it to help someone else that’s great, but it’s likely that anyone I come across injured by severe weather will need way more medical attention than my store bought kit and limited medical knowledge could ever provide.
- Nitrile gloves (small pack)
- There weren’t any in my first aid kit, so I bought them. For flat out emergencies in case I can help someone until help arrives. (calling for help is way more important) Blood is a huge vector for potential disease. Assume the worst and minimize your exposure.
- Might need to change these out every season or two as they get old.
All said, this box cost maybe $45-50 to assemble, including the tote itself. All of the “expensive” items like the flashlight and safety glasses can be reused for years. Replacing the disposable items will be less than $10 a year, if that.
What Else to Bring?
- Safety glasses (two pairs)
- In case I’ve totally screwed up and I’m going to lose the windows. Protect your eyes first and electronics second. The second pair is for the person in the car I like the best.
- A decent flashlight
- Better than using your expensive smartphone and getting it wet or muddy. I think mine was just under $20. If you want to spend a bit more maybe consider a headlamp. They’re great.
- Insect repellent. Won’t chase without it anymore. Not after 2016 at Dodge City…
- Sunscreen. Same as above.
- Wet wipes. REALLY handy. Go grab a couple little packs of them for like 99 cents each.
- Windshield wipes. To get rid of the gooey bug carcass right where the dashcam is.
- A blanket, in case you have to sleep in the car or if you just get cold.
Finishing the Chase Day
When I get to where I’m staying for the night:
- Current camera battery goes on the charger and a freshly charged battery is put in. I number my batteries to tell them apart easily. Everything else gets plugged in to charge.
- I start uploading my pictures and video from all devices (camera/phone/tablet) to the laptop. Then I back everything up to an external USB drive. Then I verify it all copied successfully. Finally, I clear out the memory card(s) and other device storage.
- Set alarm for the next day (I always use my phone because I know it works). Remember to factor in timezone changes and time to eat and forecast
The next morning…
- Cable check! Collect all the USB/Lightning/power cables I strung all over the night before. Make sure to grab the surge suppressor too.
- Hotel room checked one last time. Check the shower, sink, and under the bed.
- Gas up the car and clean the windshield.
- While fueling up, I hook everything back up (GPS/dashcam/etc) and start my GPS tracker app.
It’s not too long a list and if you want to you can move steps around. Sometimes you might get in super late and just need sleep. No problem, just move the data copy to the next day, The end result of the list is to avoid dumb technology problems, because you know everything is prepped before hitting the field.
- Keep track of your fuel gauge and fill up during any downtime. The last thing you want is to be chasing a cyclic supercell (or be chased by one!) with a quarter tank of gas.
- Do not focus solely on radar. You’re looking at a minimum of 4-5 minutes between radar updates, which can be compounded by your location and cell signal strength. Things can change quickly. Use your eyes as well! Once I get close to my target storm I rarely look at the radar, save to verify storm direction if it’s even possible.
- Don’t just focus on the sky either! There’s a lot to think about on the ground besides the normal driving considerations. Things I pay attention to:
- Conditions of the road I’m on. I might need to backtrack later. Will a storm be passing over it behind me, changing the current conditions?
- Is there construction on the road I’m on, causing delays or closures?
- Is the surrounding local road grid usable, or has recent rainfall made it suspect? Is there even a road grid at all?
- Conditions of my next road. If that road will be my escape route, has something happened to it that could affect it? Examples (and every one of these has affected me in just my first year of chasing) include:
- Does the road I’m aiming for even exist? Some chasers experienced this on May 22nd, 2010 at Bowdle, South Dakota where a farmer plowed under the road and planted crops on it!
- Did a tornado already track past and block the road ahead of me?
- Are my only road options leading me into heavy rain, large hail, or high winds?
- Am I heading into a town or other populated area? What’s the local traffic like? Is it rush hour?
- Are there a lot of chasers around?
- Rivers. Be aware of the complications involved. You might need to be aware of nearby crossing options. You don’t want to be pinned against a river with a tornado warned storm coming right at you, or miss a tornado because you couldn’t get across anywhere.
- Driving at night. Limited visibility and wild animals reduce how fast you can go. Compensate accordingly.
- Conditions of the road I’m on. I might need to backtrack later. Will a storm be passing over it behind me, changing the current conditions?
- DON’T let perceived deadlines or a desire to end your day at a specific location affect your safety. The desire to keep to an established schedule, or shelter in an prearranged location can cause a sort of cognitive bias that could potentially put you in harms way.
- For example, during a chase in April 2016 in Oklahoma I attempted to “beat the storms home” to where I was staying so I wouldn’t have to wake up anyone by arriving super late. This decision took me from a place of relative safety (the storm was going to pass over me no matter what, but my current location was near a weaker part of the squall line and perfectly safe), to driving straight into the worst part of the approaching line and stopping very close to embedded circulation within it (possibly an unconfirmed tornado).
Other stuff – my own preferences
- Once I’m chasing I don’t shut my car off at all unless I have to (like getting gas). The last thing I ever want to do is play out a horror movie scenario with me frantically trying to start my car as a tornado approaches.
- I save snapshots of my radar occasionally during the chase, especially at “decision points”. It’s mostly for the blog but I also like to go back and reassess my actions later based on those conditions. Whatever helps me get better! However if I’m in a bad spot, heavy traffic, or in direct danger, this is the first practice I abandon.
- If you have the option, get out of the car to take pictures!
- When I first started chasing, for some reason I disliked getting out of the car and predictably everything I photographed looks like it was taken…in my car.
- Close lightning? Large hail? A nearby tornado? GET BACK IN THE CAR.
- Don’t forget to walk around or change position for a better photo. Cross the road! Move away from telephone poles. You will hate yourself later when you review your pictures/footage and realize that you could have walked five steps to the right and had much better shots. Composition is still the name of the game.
- Remember you can rotate the camera and take pictures too. I tend to lock into the horizontal mindset for everything and my girlfriend laughs at me for it.
- Check your focus! Sky photography can be tricky as cameras don’t always like to focus on clouds. You may have to dial things in manually.
- For shooting video, your best bet is to set your focus manually to infinity (depending on your device) and leave it there.
- If you’re going to shoot video I highly recommend using a tripod or window mount.
- My first tornado was the May 7th, 2016 Wray, Colorado tornado. It was one of the most photogenic tornadoes of 2016. I am incredibly lucky that THIS was my first tornado. I shot it with my iPhone, which was forgivable because it was the only thing I owned at that time. I shot it holding the phone, rather than on my tripod which was sitting in the car. I want to go back in time and beat myself with the tripod.
- Keep an eye on the ground! Tall grass can hide surprises and stepping in a puddle is annoying too.
Finally, this is a preference/pet peeve thing, but I’ll bring it up. You might try to keep the babble to a minimum when you’re filming.
In my opinion, some of the best tornado footage is diminished or ruined by the chasers behind the camera shrieking about the “Tornado on the ground”, “Wedge!”, or just repeating themselves or patting themselves on the back in hysterical self-congratulation. You’re nervous, and/or excited nervous. I get it. But maybe try to put your game-face on.
This all being said, mentioning the date/time is while filming can be handy. I also sometimes mention the intersection of the street I’m at.
- Try to have a tentative plan for the end of the day. If you think you’re going to end your chase day out in north Texas, pick a town and call ahead for a hotel.
- In 2016 I neglected this repeatedly and usually decided to tough it out and drive home. This led to me repeatedly driving until exhausted and having to stop and grab a room wherever I could. It was stupid, dangerous, usually ended up being more expensive, and left me exhausted for the next chase day.
- Purely a preference thing, but I don’t recommend using the hotel/motel furniture to store anything in. I use the desk or table to work and charge my electronics, and the nightstand next to the bed to charge my phone. Nothing else. Makes checking for stuff the next morning go faster.
- Lets talk about bedbugs
- Any time I get a room the first thing I check before anything of mine leaves the car is the bed. If there are signs of bedbugs, I ask for a new room. If the next room shows signs of bedbugs, I leave. I’m told by people who have experienced it that dealing with bedbugs is a nightmare.
- All items (clothing included) stay in my main bag(s) and those bags sit up on the desk or table, or a bag stand if there is one.
- If the motel is pretty cheap and I didn’t see any bedbugs, sometimes I’ll even stash my bags in the bathtub.
- I have three extended family members who have had identity theft or credit fraud issues in the last five years because they briefly left a purse or wallet in a hotel room. One had her purse in the safe and a credit card number was still stolen (nope, not the card she used to pay for the room with). Do not leave these things in your room unattended!
Other helpful stuff
- Be careful what you eat when you’re on the road! Food poisoning or even severe indigestion will ruin your chase vacation fairly quickly.
- Avoid foods that you know can have adverse effects on you. For example since I’ve gotten older soda and I aren’t the best of friends anymore.
- I tend to avoid new restaurants or food types that I haven’t tried before when on the road. I guess this makes me a boring chase partner in some respects, but I’m out here to chase storms, not sample the local cuisine.
- Ironically some fast food places work well, because of the menu consistency. Burger King in Colorado is the same as Texas. Not the healthiest option though.
- Bring a surge suppressor. Your hotel room may have a limited number of power outlets or have unreliable power.
- Make sure it’s not just a power strip! An actual surge suppressor will help protect your equipment. It’s not uncommon to stop for the night somewhere and have storms roll through while you’re asleep, causing brownouts or a total power loss.
- If you’re staying with friends or relatives for a chase, bring all of your gear with you during the chase. I stayed with a relative in Oklahoma City during a trip in 2016 and ended up chasing in western Kansas multiple days. I left my main bag at the house though and had to drive back to central Oklahoma instead of staying somewhere local for the next chase day. Being able to modify my plans would have made for a lot less driving the next day.
- Consider getting a HAM radio license. Storms can knock out phones and internet, leaving amateur radio as one of the only means of communication. It’s free!
- Eye drops. Get some.
- Think about it. If things go well you will probably be outside in 30+ MPH winds. You will also have to stare at the road for long stretches of time. Your eyes will get tired, and they will get junk in them.
- Bring your favorite allergy medicine. If you’re new to the area you might find out that you’re allergic to something that grows in that area.